Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Rotation…?

Is there a better way of presenting circuit diagrams to our students that will aid their understanding of potential difference?

I think that, possibly, there may be.

(Note: circuit diagrams produced using the excellent — and free! — web editor at

Old ways are the best ways…? (Spoiler: not always)

This is a very typical, conventional way of showing a simple circuit.

A simple circuit as usually presented

Now let’s measure the potential difference across the cell…

Measuring the potential difference across the cell

…and across the resistor.

Measuring the potential difference across the resistor

Using a standard school laboratory digital voltmeter and assuming a cell of emf 1.5 V and negligible internal resistance we would get a value of +1.5 volts for both positions.

Let me demonstrate this using the excellent — and free! — pHET circuit simulation website.

Indeed, one might argue with some very sound justification that both measurements are actually of the same potential difference and that there is no real difference between what we chose to call ‘the potential difference across the cell’ and ‘the potential difference across the resistor’.

Try another way…

But let’s consider drawing the circuit a different (but operationally identical) way:

The same circuit drawn ‘all-in-a-row’

What would happen if we measured the potential difference across the cell and the resistor as before…

This time, we get a reading (same assumptions as before) of [positive] +1.5 volts of potential difference for the potential difference across the cell and [negative] -1.5 volts for the potential difference across the resistor.

This, at least to me, is a far more conceptually helpful result for student understanding. It implies that the charge carriers are gaining energy as they pass through the cell, but losing energy as they pass through the resistor.

Using the Coulomb Train Model of circuit behaviour, this could be shown like this:

+1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model
-1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model. (Note: for a single resistor circuit, the emerging coulomb would have zero energy.)

We can, of course, obtain a similar result for the conventional layout, but only at the cost of ‘crossing the leads’ — a sin as heinous as ‘crossing the beams’ for some students (assuming they have seen the original Ghostbusters movie).

Crossing the leads on a voltmeter

A Hidden Rotation?

The argument I am making is that the conventional way of drawing simple circuits involves an implicit and hidden rotation of 180 degrees in terms of which end of the resistor is at a more positive potential.

A hidden rotation…?

Of course, experienced physics learners and instructors take this ‘hidden rotation’ in their stride. It is an example of the ‘curse of knowledge’: because we feel that it is not confusing we fail to anticipate that novice learners could find it confusing. Wherever possible, we should seek to make whatever is implicit as explicit as we can.


A translation is, of course, a sliding transformation, rather than a circumrotation. Hence, I had to dispense with this post’s original title of ‘Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Translation’.

However, I do genuinely feel that some students understanding of circuits could be inadvertently ‘lost in rotation’ as argued above.

I hope my fellow physics teachers try introducing potential difference using the ‘all-in-row’ orientation shown.

The all-in=a-row orientation for circuit diagrams to help student understanding of potential difference

I would be fascinated to know if they feel its a helpful contribition to their teaching repetoire!